It's Halloween, the time of year when you're supposed to be scared of ghosts and people who hand out pennies instead of candy when you're trick-or-treating. This year, Halloween is the day before the College Football Playoff Rankings are released for the first time in 2022, and that's the scariest thing of all for me. It means we're entering the least appealing part of the college football season: the time of year when the only thing anybody talks about is the College Football Playoff.
While playoff discussion has been a part of every college football weekend since the format was introduced, having CFP Rankings means discussion of the playoff is about to increase by roughly eleventy billion percent. Get ready to watch a Group of Five game between two teams with no shot of reaching a bowl, let alone the playoff, and suddenly see a graphic with the top four for the announcer, color analyst and sideline reporter. They'll then spend 10 minutes sharing their thoughts on the rankings as if they're recording a podcast as the game you're trying to watch because you bet over continues in the background (though I will say ESPN has kept its word so far and seriously cut down on CFP discussion in unrelated games this year).
Instead of being afraid of it this year, I've decided to embrace it. For this week, at least. In this week's Monday After, we'll steer into the skid and go over what each national title contender is the most afraid of this Halloween. I'll use the order of the latest AP Top 25, limiting it to Power Five teams with no more than one loss. Both for the sanity of myself and my editors.
No. 1 Georgia - Stetson Bennett: While nobody has ever confused Bennett with a Heisman front-runner or future first-round NFL Draft pick, he was good in 2021. He finished the season ranked fourth nationally in passing efficiency, third in yards per dropback, and third in touchdown rate. While he wasn't asked to drop back and sling it 40 times per game like others, he was remarkably efficient when Georgia asked him to throw the ball.
That's not the case in 2022. Bennett ranks 38th in passing efficiency this season, as his 176.69 rating from 2021 has dipped to 150.6. While he's still sixth in yards per dropback, his touchdown rate has plummeted from 10.1% in 2021 to 3.4% in 2022, putting him 98th nationally among qualified QBs. The Dawgs get Tennessee this weekend and would likely face Alabama in the SEC Championship, should they get there. If they reached the playoff, they might see one of them again or Ohio State. Is the 2022 version of Stetson Bennett enough to beat those teams with?
No. 2 Tennessee - Teams that can throw the football: The biggest difference between the Vols and other elite teams in 2022 is on the defensive side of the ball. They just don't match up well in most areas. Where Tennessee excels defensively is against the run, as it ranks No. 9 nationally in expected points added (EPA) per rush. Where it lags far behind is in pass defense.
Thankfully, Tennessee doesn't have to play Tennessee. We know the Vols will score points, but when they run into teams capable of moving the ball in the air, we don't know if they can keep their opponent from doing so. Tennessee's defense ranks 84th nationally in EPA per dropback despite ranking 27th in pressure rate. In short, if they don't get to the QB, there isn't much of a Plan B. The 52-49 win vs. Alabama was fun for Tennessee fans and neutral observers, but tennis matches like that are essentially coin flips. At some point, you need to get a stop.
No. 2 Ohio State - The secondary: Ohio State has an elite pass rush, and overall its numbers against the pass have been excellent, but those numbers are misleading. The QBs the Buckeyes faced through their first seven games were nothing special, and you could argue that Toledo was the most dangerous passing attack it had seen. On Saturday, Penn State showed the world how you could beat this Ohio State defense.
The Nittany Lions spread Ohio State out. They had their receivers lining up as close to the sidelines as possible (basically doing what Tennessee does) to spread the Buckeyes' defenders and found a lot of space to work with because of it. The Nittany Lions threw for 371 yards, and if not for an incredible performance from J.T. Tuimoloau and the Ohio State pass rush, it might have knocked the Buckeyes off with it.
No. 4 Michigan - The red zone: The Wolverines have struggled to finish drives. It has not caught up to them yet because they haven't played the most challenging schedule, but their inability to punch the ball into the end zone has allowed opponents to stick around. The good news is Michigan is even better at keeping opponents from finding the end zone. Still, when you're trying to win a national title, you will come against offenses that are far more dangerous than the ones Michigan has faced.
The Wolverines have scored touchdowns on 63.6% of their red-zone possessions, which ranks 59th nationally. In the last two weeks against Penn State and Michigan State, they scored four touchdowns in 11 trips and settled for seven field goals. Settling for field goals gets you beat against playoff contenders.
No. 5 Clemson - The rest of the ACC: I can't help but believe an undefeated ACC Champion Clemson is in the playoff no matter what, but it's not a guarantee. What if TCU goes undefeated too? Suppose there's a scenario where the SEC and Big Ten champ are both in, a one-loss Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio State or Michigan sitting around, and maybe a one-loss Pac-12 champ. What happens when the committee starts comparing resumes?
It's not Clemson's fault the ACC stinks, nor is it Clemson's fault Notre Dame is having a bad season, but what will Clemson's best win be if it wins out? There's a possibility the Tigers won't have beaten anybody with fewer than three losses by judgment day.
No. 6 Alabama - Bryce Young's health: We already saw glimpses of Alabama without Young when he was knocked out of the Arkansas game and missed the Texas A&M game. The Tide managed to escape both of them with wins, but his injury showed the world how vulnerable the Tide are without him.
Plus -- and let's say this in hushed tones, so nobody overhears -- he hasn't been as good since returning. I don't know that he's fully healthy. In 4.5 games before the injury, Young had a passing efficiency of 162.7, averaging 7.91 yards per dropback, 9.28 air yards per attempt, and a touchdown rate of 10.4%. Since returning, his efficiency rating is down to 147.5, yards per dropback has dropped to 7.41, his air yards are roughly the same at 9.21, but his touchdown rate is a measly 4.6%.
No. 7 TCU - Having to pressure a QB: The Horned Frogs don't seem to know how to do it. Their pressure rate of 25.6% ranks 114th nationally. It's part of the reason why the Frogs are 8-0 but not blowing teams out. Sure, they crushed Colorado and Tarleton, but the 31-point win over Oklahoma is misleading due to Dillon Gabriel being knocked out of the game (though TCU led by 17 at the time).
As good as TCU is, it's probably not beating Tennessee, Ohio State, or Alabama if it can't pressure the QB.
No. 8 Oregon -
Facing Georgia again It's the defense: The Ducks' defense isn't "bad for a national title contender," it's legitimately bad. Like, one of the worst in the country bad. The Ducks rank 106th in EPA per snap, 117th in success rate, and 108th in points allowed per drive. You aren't winning a national title that way.
No. 9 USC - Its defense: Seriously, copy and paste everything I wrote about Oregon and put it here too. The only thing we need to change slightly is the numbers, as the Trojans rank 103rd in EPA per play, 126th in success rate, and 92nd in points allowed per drive. The USC defense depends entirely on forcing turnovers, but do you know what good teams don't do? Exactly.
No. 10 UCLA - The red zone: Like Michigan, the Bruins have struggled finishing drives. They've scored touchdowns on only 61.4% of their red-zone possessions, which ranks 75th nationally. Unlike Michigan, they're just as bad in the red zone on defense. In fact, they're worse. UCLA's opponents have scored touchdowns on 70.8% of their red-zone possessions against the Bruins, which ranks 114th nationally among defenses.
No. 11 Ole Miss - The rest of the schedule: Ole Miss is 8-1, but it doesn't have the most impressive resume. The SEC West has been pretty mediocre this season, and the Rebels' best win is a 22-19 win over a 5-3 Kentucky team that fell out of the AP poll following a loss to Tennessee. The best team they faced, LSU, beat them 45-20. Now they get a week off before facing Alabama, and if they somehow get through the Tide, Arkansas and Mississippi State, they'll have Georgia or Tennessee waiting in Atlanta.
No. 14 Illinois - Michigan and/or Ohio State: Illinois has a legitimately outstanding defense. Even when adjusted for their opponents, the metrics scream the Illini are great at keeping teams off the scoreboard. But life is a lot different in the Big Ten West than the East, and while they still have to play Purdue, they have a bigger game awaiting in Ann Arbor against Michigan in late November. If they somehow get past the Wolverines, they'll face Ohio State in Indianapolis. If that happens, we'll all have a better idea of how good the defense truly is.
No. 17 North Carolina - My god, the defense: Remember all those numbers I shared about Oregon and USC? Well, the Heels are even worse. They're 120th in EPA per snap, 122nd in success rate, and 111th in points allowed per drive. They have a future first-round pick at QB in Drake Maye helping paint over the cracks, but it's hard to believe a team with a defense this bad will reach the playoff.
Punt of the Week
Tip Drill of the Week
I mentioned how Stetson Bennett's touchdown rate dropped this season, and it would be even lower if not for this sorcery from Brock Bowers.
Fake Field Goal of the Week
It's not often you see kickers running inside zone, but Oklahoma's Zach Schmit seems to have the play down. Look at the solid fundamentals! Look at his balance and low center of gravity as he makes his cut.
Angriest AD of the Week
It seems USC athletic director Mike Bohn is not a fan of Pac-12 officiating. Surely the officials in the Big Ten will be better! And at least if they aren't, you can always look at your budget to soothe your soul.
Catch of the Week
College Football Playoff Projection of the Week
We actually have rankings to compare my projection to this week. How exciting.
- Ohio State
Until the next Monday After!